Bryce Edwards: A fractious, dirty new Parliament starts today

Bryce Edwards: A fractious, dirty new Parliament starts today

The 52nd Parliament officially opened this morning, and it might end up being one of the more fractious and tense representative assemblies New Zealand has seen for some time. There are already signs that any goodwill between the Government and Opposition has been depleted, and instead of constructive and useful political engagement, we can expect to see dirty fighting and an intense struggle between the new coalition government attempting to carry out reforms, and what has been described as “the opposition from hell”.

Even in the couple of hours since Parliament opened there have been some incredible stories that show the potential chaos and intense feeling already brewing – see Nicholas Jones’ Labour and National face-off in Parliament opening over Speaker vote, and the Herald’s Winston Peters takes legal action against nine people he believes helped leak pension overpayment info.

It suggests that the public should get ready for a wild ride as the swings, surprises and intensity of this year’s colourful election campaign are matched by the configurations in the new Parliament.

National’s hellish opposition

The National Party has already signalled its intention to be a forceful opposition in Parliament. Of course, this is quite appropriate – New Zealand’s Westminster system is highly dependent on a strong opposition keeping the government of the day in check.

But just how combative will the Opposition be? There is sometimes a fine-line for oppositions to walk between being robust, and being petty, dirty, and overly-obstructive.

On the one hand, National Leader Bill English showed today that his party can be willing to agree with the new Government, by announcing it would support the extension of Paid Parental leave to 26 weeks, despite National’s policy of a shorter period of entitlement, and having vetoed a parliamentary bill on this last year – see Newshub’s National does U-turn on paid parental leave.

On the other, Bill English signalled last week that his party is going to try to make life very difficult for the new government, saying “You should expect more tension and more pressure in the Parliament” – see Nicholas Jones’ Bill English warns Labour: ‘it’s not our job to make this place run’.

According to this report, the National Party “will use its size to frustrate progress for the new Government.” And that reference to National’s size is the key point – because with 56 MPs, this is the largest party to occupy the opposition benches in New Zealand’s political history.

Former Labour Party staffer Emma Espiner warns National is going to be The Opposition from Hell. Writing a month ago, Espiner predicted “we will see a Monster Opposition – 56 seats – think what that will look like and even sound like – the debating chamber is small, your opponents close, and 56 roaring MPs facing new Labour and Green Ministers will be genuinely testing.”

Furthermore, although many parties shifting from government to opposition often descend into infighting, Espiner suggests this isn’t likely to occur with National, who are hell-bent on staying united simply because “they will relish the opportunity to make life hell for the NZ First/Labour/Green coalition.” And she points to all the resources that will allow National to make life difficult for the coalition government.

Tracy Watkins wrote yesterday, “National MPs have been highly visible and energetic in their first days back in Opposition, giving weight to the message that they mean business. They also have the advantage of more insider knowledge than their opponents at the moment. While the new ministers get up to speed, National’s former ministers know the system inside and out.” – see: Parliament will now be in session and Labour should not expect an easy ride.

Gerry Brownlee can be expected to be one of the big hitters in opposition. Jenna Lynch has already pointed to Brownlee as upping his game and aggression levels, and she labels him “National’s Agitator-in-Chief” – see: Gerry Brownlee shows National is set to play rough.

Lynch’s story is about a hard-hitting press release issued by Brownlee: “He stepped up and sent out the first real opposition press release, the first real attack.  The haste and blunt wording is a symbolic message of what’s to come. The fact that it came from Brownlee is a sign this is a directive from high – go hard or go home. It’s a lesson for all the newbies – ‘This is how we act in Opposition’. It’s rough, tough and it will get dirty.”

A large part of the reason for National’s combativeness is the process by which they find themselves in opposition. They weren’t expecting defeat, and many still feel wronged and are therefore unchastened. Rob Hosking explains much of this in his RNZ column, National needs to be a ‘practical and sceptical’ opposition.

Here’s his main point: “Usually when a party goes into opposition after a long stint in government it is not so much put there as flung there by angry or disillusioned voters. This usually comes after one final Parliamentary term in which the party is shot full of bullet holes by attacks from the opposition, the media, and, not infrequently, their own side. Ministers are exhausted – usually more so than they realise until the adrenaline of office vanishes. The party tends to be divided and demoralised. This is not one of those situations – not quite, anyway. National is the largest party in Parliament. It will be resourced accordingly. Its members – most of them – did not expect defeat. There is nowhere near the same demoralisation apparent in 1999 or in 1984 – or seen in Labour in 2008 and 1990.”

National’s fight over select committee numbers

An arcane but important fight has been going on over the last day about how many MPs should be allocated to the parliamentary select committees that examine legislation. It’s a convoluted and complex story, but best summed up by Jane Patterson: “Labour and National have their first major disagreement in the new Parliament over the number of MPs serving on select committees. National said changes to MP representation means its ability to hold the new government to account is being compromised. The number of MPs who will sit on select committees has been reduced, but Leader of the House Chris Hipkins said that was because of an agreement all political parties signed up to in the last Parliament. Simon Bridges, the shadow Leader of the House, said having fewer seats would mean 11 National MPs would miss out on sitting on a select committee” – see: Labour and National spat over MP representation.

Simon Bridges, who is the new shadow leader of the house, has expressed National’s opposition to the changes in a dramatic fashion: “It’s a really alarming erosion of the Opposition’s democratic rights in our Parliament like we have never seen before. It is an unprecedented situation” – see Nicholas Jones’ National clashes with Labour: ‘erosion of democratic rights’.

For an elaboration of Bridges’ arguments it’s worth reading David Farrar’s Labour freezing National MPs out of select committees, and Graeme Edgeler’s Despite Simon Bridges’ idiocy, does he have a point on overall (subject) select committee membership?

And for the best critique, see Andrew Geddis’ Simon Bridges thinks that Simon Bridges is eroding parliamentary democracy.

Of course, the whole debacle has now been resolved courtesy of another debacle, in which Labour mismanaged its numbers and strategy today when the new Parliament opened. For Claire Trevett’s take on what happened, see: National makes Government look like fools as it blackmails Labour for Speaker vote.

This extraordinary episode has provided a useful example of what might be coming during this Parliament – a very intense battle in which the gloves are off between Labour and National. Richard Harman reports on how Simon Bridges had said that National was going to fight Labour over the issue, with him saying that Labour was “going to find that they have got a much less reasonable, more obstructive Opposition that will find issues to muck them around on” – see: Bridges planning to logjam Parliament.

Threats to slow down the coalition government are taken very seriously by Gordon Campbell, who suggests that we are witnessing the importing of US-style tactics: “the National Party has been planning to mimic the worst practices of the Republican Party when it comes to its parliamentary tactics in opposition. For the eight years of the Obama administration, the Republicans responded by trying to create legislative gridlock at every opportunity. If it couldn’t run the business of government, it would do its damndest to derail the ability of anyone else to govern” – see: On the battle over select committees.

Campbell applauds Labour for fighting back, and trying to thwart National’s plans on the select committees, saying “A line is being crossed here. It is not the job of her Majesty’s loyal Opposition to oppose, not to render Parliament ungovernable.”

And certainly, the Government’s Leader of House, Chris Hipkins, was fairly upfront in suggesting that Labour’s intransigence over the select committee numbers was, in part, due to a fear that National was going to use the committees to deliberately frustrate the Labour’s reform agenda. Hipkins therefore declared “It would be fair to say we are not of a mind to increase the numbers on select committee in order to make it easier for them to do that” – see Laura Walters’ National calls Government’s plans for select committee ‘undemocratic’.

However, regardless of who came out on top in this battle, blogger No Right Turn suggests that everyone loses, as once again it just shows all politicians in a bad light – see: Hypocrisy all round.

Finally, National might be feeling smug about how things went today, but conservative political commentator Liam Hehir has sounded a note of caution, suggesting National should avoid being too negative too early.